Friday, November 23, 2007

Tonle Sap: An Afternoon Row into the Lake

We tend to forget what we have.
Simply because it’s there. Always there.
Then you come to a place where a dollar is a wealth.
Those that 'used to be there' become as scarce as hen's teeth.
Then you go back and realize that—
what was 'used to be there,' are not there anymore.

Bodies of water play a crucial role in the life of the Cambodians. As an agricultural country like the Philippines, fishing is a major source of food and of livelihood. In fact, one can easily find images of fish and fishermen etched on the walls of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples. Even their currency, riel, was taken from the name of a fish (silver carp). At the heart of this fishing activity is the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), a freshwater lake which is considered to be the largest in SE Asia.

After visiting the surrounding stone temples of Angkor Wat (which I plan to feature later on), I was excited taking a boat trip into a floating village in Tonle Sap. A change in view of nothing but stones and dry land is a promising delight.


A boathouse. He looks lonely in there, smoking alone and looking out at the brown lake. But I guess, this is their way of passing the time, looking out in the vastness of the lake, watching boats with tourists in it. I tried waving at him, he doesn't seem to notice me.

Our tuk-tuk driver took us to a small fishing village called Chong Kneas, which is not far from Siem Reap. When we got to the barge, the operators asked us to pay $10 each for the boat ride.

We rode into a boat with a roof. It reminded me of our trip to the Underground River in Palawan. I thought we’ll have more passengers inside but it turns out that it’s just the three of us there (no wonder they required individual tickets) plus the driver.

taking a bath1

This looks fun. Taking a bath at the brown lake. We spotted these kiddies swimming under the hooches.

taking a bath2

Two kids just finishing off with their bath in front of the floating school.

Our driver (maybe in his late twenties) seemed to be driving at an ease except that we had to stop in a nearby floating house to gas-up. We also stopped in the middle of the lake for a reason we could not figure out. The motor of his boat charged out every now and then so, he had to go at the back of the boat and fix it. We asked him what seems to be the problem and he just gave us a weary smile saying, “Nu prublem!” and gave us a thumbs-up. Okay, if you said so.

Except for those incidents, our trip was okay. And because the boat was not crowded, I was able to position myself rather easily to take some shots. I was wide-eye and excited the whole time we were cruising, trying not to miss out on anything, looking like a real ignorant tourist :-)

please buy

A mother begs for tourists to buy some of her bananas. If you are the tourist and you see her and her kid, will you buy? Saying "no" is (so) difficult. But you cannot buy every bunch of bananas being offered to you, right?

It was brown water all the way! It seems to me that the villagers are used to tourists gawking at them with interest, as if watching a scene from a movie. Cruising on the Great Lake is a new experience for me; watching people go by their daily routines while everything seems to literally “float” on them.

You have floating houses that are made of rafts, barges, covered fishing boats, even thatched huts on stilts. Most of the houses are discolored and weather-beaten but there are also newly-painted and attractive houses. Floating schools, floating restaurants, floating hospital, mechanic shops, electric shops, even a floating Catholic church. Name it, they have it. It’s a normal village set-up except that like I said, everything floats. The lake is their way of life. They bathe in it, they discharge in it, they use the water to clean their houses, they get their food and livelihood from it.

boating village

Ladies rowing through the brown lake, with floating houses at the background.

ladies in lilies

Young ladies flash a smile as their little rowboat approaches us.

floating school

A floating school furnished with a playground on the top. I wonder how they play in there. I feel seasick rushing in just looking at it.

While we were smoothly cruising the lake, out of nowhere, two girls who were riding in a small rowboat suddenly barged into our boat offering us softdrinks in can and bunches of ripe bananas. We got a bit surprised, not really because they were offering us goods but because they caught up with our motor boat so easily.

One thing I have learned from this travel is saying "no". Even though I like to buy sometimes, I have stiffened myself up a bit. Just a bit. It’s difficult to say “No” especially if you know that this money will feed mouths. The whole time we were traveling, we met a horde of vendors offering almost eveything, i.e. water, softdrinks, handmade bracelets, postcards, even a flute.

mom and kids

Mother and her four kids rowing into the lake to sell some goods.

house with garden

House built on a raft. There is a small garden in front of his house too.

small fish

The guy was showing me the fish he caught. Not enough to feed a family but he looks happy.

want a snake

One way of getting the tourists attention is a good trick so that they can sell their goods. Take this little girl for instance. Truly, she did get our attention.

girls in their hats

Nothing unusual with this scene, except that I like watching these three ladies in their hats.

We got surprised by the skill of these people to follow big boats and barge into them to offer goods. I see it as a small competition, whoever gets to the big boat first, get the most customers. But really, it is not a simple boat race. To them, it is a race to survive, to feed their children and family even for a day. What to eat for the day is a recurring problem. They face it, each day at a time, depending on how tourists would appeal to their senses and give in.

Imagine the trouble of following big boats around, rowing so hard and trying to beat the waves under the heat of the sun, carrying your little children with you (some of them naked and toasted from too much heat) and all you get is a dollar for a bunch of banana or a can of Coke?

family of vendor

A family of vendor. The father rows the boat, the mother and the two kids sell the goods. The baby has to join the family business at that very early age so that mommy could feed her.

I also come from a third world country. I am not rich but I am not (too) poor either but I have seen the various faces of poverty. It's not a new scene anymore. In Tonle Sap, what I saw was just a glimpse of what it’s like living in the lake. I cannot claim that I know the feeling as I did not eat with them or live with them, what I had was just an afternoon trip. I maybe a foreigner to this land, but the problem of poverty is not a foreign issue. I maybe there as an outsider but I get to understand how it is living in a place like that. I know it sounds lame but, going into trips like this, makes me appreciate (more) what I have and what I can give to others.



Ferdz said...

I just love your chronicle on Tonle Sap, I think you captured the colors well. Ang gaganda! very well documented.

Grabe yung mga small boats ano, bigla na lang sila kakapit sa boat mo para magbenta ng softdrinks and banana. Nagulat din ako nun since our boat was speeding up.

Nakakalungkot ang buhay nila but it's the only way they know how to live.

david said...

a marvellous series of photos, and you've written well to accompany it. well done for making this so interesting!!

haggis basher said...


I'm loving this series of images....... with your story.

Sidney said...

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.
-John Berger-

Great pictures of daily life... nice travel stories...

kyels said...


Your chronicles of this Tonle Sap journey is brilliant! I just love the way you document everything and all the photos have their own stories to tell; which is amazing. My favorite photo is the guy showing you the little fish he caught. Nicely composed and love the bokeh!

Reading your posts only heightens my desire to visit Cambodia even more.


lino said...

nice series rayts, sana makapunta rin ako dyan one day, hehehe...
love the 'finishing off their bath' and the "mother begging"...

pieterbie said...

Great report in photos and words, Rayts!
Great compositions and colours.
And a great lesson of how things are in a poor country.
You sure do travel, your adventures humble me.

ndiginiz said...

Tena koe ehoa
Rayts this series of images is brilliant and what I consider to be exceptional documentary photography.
I like that you have exclaimed the intensity of the poverty that surrounds an area like Tonle Sap visually.
There is a relativity with many other poverty stricken areas in many other countries facing the same plight as in Tonle Sap, like Senegal, Brazil and the Africa's. Theres is as Sidney suggests a new origin of poverty in todays society that is derived from the distancing of and from the poor by the rich.
While humanity excels for physical, social, political and intellectual advancement there is so much of the world that is knowingly left behind or swept under the global carpet of apathy known as poverty. Making it the fault in many cases of their own poverty stricken selves but not consequently the responsibility of anyone else.
Therein lies the deceit and apathy of poverty.

Your images evoke a sense and a physical feeling of sadness which is what I would want them to do Rayts, as is the nature of the truth it is beautiful in it's effervescent inspiration as it is in it's dark ugliness of humanity but, it is nonetheless very much the REALITY of the world today.

rayts said...

naks naman. thanks. alam mo nagugulat ako minsan sa kulay ng lake na yan. may mga kuha ako na hindi brown yung kulay ng tubig lalo na yung sa may bandang gitna. Di ko alam kung dahil sobrang init at nagre-reflect yung langit sa tubig pero may pagkakataon na hindi brown yung tubig. meron ding pagkakataon na medyo brownish-green siya. lalo na dun sa bahagi na maraming water lilies. maganda daw ang lake during sundown.

yung unang 2 batang babae na sumampa sa boat namin, nagulat talaga ako. akala ko kase kung ano ang gagawin nila, may dala pa silang pangkawit, hehe. tapos nung nag-offer na ng softdrinks, nagets ko na. hinindian namin. automatic na. tapos sinimangutan kami tas bulong ng bulong di namin maintindihan. e ang tagal naka-tigil yung boat. si Oki, yung ksama ko, mahilig yun mang-asar pinilit niyang patawanin yung isang girl. tumawa naman. nagtawanan na lang sila.

thanks, coming from you, i appreciate it a lot.

thanks mate... ;-)

just love it when you give this kind of quote. makes me smile and makes me think. that quote tells it all. as the great Charles Darwin said, the misery of the poor is not anymore caused by the laws of nature but by the current institutions, making the poor more poorer. I know of all people, you know this fact, you have seen the many faces of poverty.

salamat talaga. natutuwa ako sa mga komento mo. sana nga ay makapunta ka sa Cambodia sa mga susunod na araw. siguro pag natapos mo na ang iyong thesis?!

thanks...basta kung pupunta ka, tanong ka lang kay Ferdz. sa akin din pwede. i will share some tips.

thank you. this travel humbles me too. and it's by seeing it with my own eyes and learning from other people's experiences that I learn and appreciate things.

first, thank you for always taking the time commenting. not just commenting but really taking the time to share your thoughts and opinions on a certain issue. you don't know hoe appreciate it.

you are right. poverty is never an isolated case, we see it everyday and we see it everywhere. the line between the poor and the rich heightens by the minute. but we can't get rid of poverty by giving people money.

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